Josh Hawley, the Missouri attorney general and rising Republican star who appeared to have a clear path to the party’s U.S. Senate nomination this year, is now facing vague but widespread rumors of buyer’s remorse in the party.
One of Hawley’s top supporters, former U.S. Sen. John Danforth of Missouri, hinted Tuesday that he believes those rumors might stem from incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. — who has shown in the past a talent for scrambling the home turf of her enemies.
Danforth offered no evidence implicating McCaskill, and her office is strongly denying any role.
The concerns about Hawley’s campaign, conveyed in part by anonymous sources on national political websites, focus on his fundraising, which is solid by most standards but hasn’t kept up with McCaskill’s financial juggernaut.
There is also the fact that she has been stumping all over Missouri while he has mostly remained on the job in Jefferson City.
His recent comments blaming sex trafficking on the sexual revolution of 50 years ago got unwanted national attention and have added to the sense of a campaign adrift.
Politico reported Friday that U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, who decided last year not to seek the Senate seat, had been recently approached by some in the party about reconsidering.
In an interview Tuesday with the Post-Dispatch, Wagner acknowledged she has received numerous calls from people inside and outside the state who asked her to reconsider — “I answer my cellphone,” she said — but has been steadfast in her decision to not run.
Other whispers abound. On Monday, USA Today quoted former Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, R-Mo., warning: “If Hawley doesn’t gear it up and get with it, he’ll not beat her.” A Roll Call story this week asks, “What’s going on with the Missouri Senate race?”
There are local reports of a mysterious robocall poll, denied by all sides, that gives recipients the impression that Wagner is running. Lesser known GOP primary challengers such as former Libertarian Austin Petersen are jockeying for what they see as a possible opening.
Hawley’s problems were exacerbated by the emergence last month of audio of a speech he gave to pastors in December in which he blamed sex trafficking on the cultural trappings of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s — a movement widely credited with creating access to birth control and other advances for women.
Hawley’s campaign pushed back hard on the notion that his fundraising has been lax, noting that the $958,000 Hawley raised in the last quarter of 2017 is higher than that of any other nonincumbent Republican Senate candidate in the country.
Kyle Plotkin, Hawley’s campaign manager, said Hawley’s lack of presence on the campaign trail — as McCaskill has conducted a flurry of town hall-style events across the state — has been due to his duties as attorney general.
“She is ‘Campaign Claire,’ that is her focus,” he said. “Josh is working as attorney general, investigating Google and cracking down on human trafficking.”
Regarding the fundraising gap, Hawley spokeswoman Kelli Ford argued: “There is no amount of money that can help a candidate with low popularity win an election.”
McCaskill is considered one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats in the country this year, with roughly even approval-disapproval marks in a state that went to Republican Donald Trump by about 20 percentage points in 2016. Trump has endorsed Hawley.
In an interview with the Post-Dispatch, Danforth, the retired senator and party elder, suggested that McCaskill might have had a role in the whispers of party frustration with Hawley on national political sites.
“I don’t want to peddle conspiracy theories … (but) who would have an interest in putting that rumor out there?” said Danforth, who helped clear the Republican field for Hawley and expressed continued support for him Tuesday.
Danforth didn’t outright allege a McCaskill role in the stories, but said: “Sen. McCaskill is a very shrewd operator. Witness her engineering the (Todd) Akin nomination. … She doesn’t miss a trick.”
Akin was the St. Louis-area congressman who emerged from a brutal GOP Senate primary in 2012 to challenge McCaskill, only to stumble with his comments claiming that “legitimate rape” doesn’t cause pregnancy.
McCaskill later admitted — boasted, really — of how her campaign spent major money and effort to help Akin win the GOP nomination over other Republicans, believing he would be easiest to beat in the general election.
After Akin’s “legitimate rape” flub, as Republicans nationally were trying to get him off the ballot, McCaskill publicly defended his right to keep running. She ended up beating him by more than 15 percentage points.
Asked about Danforth’s implication, McCaskill spokeswoman Meira Bernstein issued a statement that both denied any role in the criticisms of Hawley and lavishly repeated them.
“Neither Claire nor our campaign has anything to do with the fact that Josh Hawley has been completely unimpressive to Missouri Republicans,” said the statement. “We had nothing to do with … Hawley’s lackluster fundraising, or the fact that he doesn’t understand the origins of sex trafficking. Instead of pointing fingers at Claire, Hawley’s team would do well to take a look in the mirror.”
Former Missouri Republican Chairman John Hancock, now a political consultant, confirmed that he’d heard that Wagner was getting pressed by “different folks, donors and grass-roots people” to get into the race.
“The thing you really can’t have is a (contentious) primary, especially when the other side doesn’t have one,” Hancock said. “I don’t expect the congresswoman to get into a race that he (Hawley) is already in.”
He added: “I think it’s fairly typical to have some unsettlement out there” between backers of different party names. “The political road is a bumpy one.”
Wagner told the Post-Dispatch she is committed to winning her re-election bid to the House in November, rather than running for the Senate. “As I have said repeatedly, I am focused on my work that is important and pressing in Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District,” she said.
But when asked if that was a “Shermanesque statement” — meaning, a definitive “no” along the lines of the Civil War general who said he would not run if nominated or serve if elected — Wagner demurred. “I won’t be quoting Sherman today,” she said.